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At Chicago Newsroom, we like to talk about the week’s local news and about local journalism.

We invite reporters, historians, activists, academicians and newsmakers -and pretty much anyone with an interesting story to tell – sit at the table with us. We think of our show as a conversation about this week’s Chicago.

Chicago Newsroom is produced at CAN TV, and runs on CAN TV 27 at 6:00 PM every Thursday night, with rebroadcasts at 9:00 AM the following Friday, 6 PM the following Saturday and 9:00 AM on Sunday. 

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CN May 24 2018

A City Council meeting attracts about a hundred off-duty police officers and  more than a hundred anti-police protesters for one of the most raucous meetings in recent memory. They manage to approve the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, but the news accounts all note that there was a “no” vote. It came from first-term Alderman David Moore. The Mayor, according to the Daily Line’s Managing Editor Heather Cherone, wasn’t amused.

When Emanuel called president Obama, “The Mayor said it was 47 to 1,” Cherone tells us. “And apparently the former President responded, ‘Well who was that one?’…That one vote is going to stick in the Mayor’s craw for a little while, and again, David Moore was consistent. The Obama Center will need somewhere in the neighborhood of $175-million in taxpayer money to move several roads to make the plan possible. And Alderman Moore’s point was, “Where is that money coming from? Am I going to have to give up road resurfacing or infrastructure projects in my Ward so that we can pay for this? And if that’s what the trade-off is I vote no’”.

“And we should note that the City Council’s approval is sort of the first hurdle that the Center had to get over,” she adds. “It still has to undergo a federal review because the park is on the National Historic Landmarks list, and also there is already a lawsuit that is seeking to stop it. So it’s sort of the end of the beginning, I think, as one of the aldermen said yesterday.”

Governor Rauner did something very confusing earlier this week. The Legislature passed a bill calling for a 72-hour “cooling off” period before the purchase of “assault” weapons.  But Governor Rauner, using his amendatory veto, essentially re-wrote the bill, extending the waiting period to all firearms purchases, but also adding a reinstatement of the death penalty. It seemed not to please anybody. “I think the Governor is trying to heal a rift with the conservative Republicans in his party that don’t like his votes to broaden abortion rights, and at the same time put the Democrats in some sort of trick box, but I don’t think he expects that legislation to pass,” explains Hal Dardick, (recently appointed) investigative reporter with the Chicago Tribune. “His calculation I think is that to reinstate the death penalty for a police officer, people that shoot and kill police officers or that commit mass murders is that that will appeal to the base, and that he doesn’t have to worry about the 72-hour thing passing because the whole package is sort of dead on arrival for any number of reasons. So he’s made his political statement and let’s move on.”

“For most of this year the debate about guns in Springfield has been about licensing gun stores,” adds WBEZ’s state politics reporter Tony Arnold, “which hasn’t really been much of a discussion outside of anywhere but Illinois, and it’s been really pushed hard by the Mayor and the police superintendent, and it’s been adjusted a few times in Springfield. They have a few more Republicans than they had before, but it’s not clear if it has the Governor’s support still. And so this could be a way for Rauner to be, rather than waiting to see what the legislature sends him in terms of legislation of public safety, this is his way of trying to take control, or at least address some other policy besides just what is handed to him.”

We also note that a recent meeting in Springfield, the Governor’s  policy chief admitted that the Governor might be willing to sign a bill that didn’t include the death penalty measure, but a press person almost immediately  disputed that claim.

When the Council turned to voting for partial funding of the Mayor’s proposed police training facility in West Garfield Park, two aldermen jumped ship, calling for a deferral of the matter to the next meeting. The Latino caucus denied that it had anything to do with that vote, but the group expelled one of the Aldermen, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the same day.

“I mean it’s unprecedented for a caucus to expel a member,” Cherone explains. “And (Chairman) Villegas told me that it was not related to the police academy issue, but that Alderman Ramirez-Rosa just did not attend the caucus meetings. The other members of the caucus were putting 100% in and he wasn’t, and that was why this move was made. They will meet again next month in a caucus, and Alderman Villegas said that they will give Alderman Ramirez-Rosa a chance to address the caucus.”

The training facility is emerging as one of the most contentious issues facing the mayor right now. Almost every alderman wants it, but there’s stiff community opposition from protesters who insist that the money should be spent on projects that directly benefit impoverished neighborhoods.

“It goes back to the 2016 investigation of the Police Department by the Obama Justice Department that found that police officers were essentially leaving the training academy ill-equipped and unprepared to constitutionally police,” Cherone points out. “And part of the problem was that the current training facility is near Whitney Young High School on the near west side and it is essentially falling apart. So one of the recommendations in that report was for the City to build a new training facility. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “Yep, we’re going to do that.”

Tony Arnold brings us up-to-date on the remarkable serial tragedy at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy. WBEZ reported that a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak occurred in 2015, killing 13 residents. One, they reported earlier this month, was Delores French. “She was living at the Veteran’s home in an independent living building and her husband who needed more care was in a separate building, so she was healthy other than the fact that she was deaf,” Arnold explains. “The coroner had found that there was severe decay in her body when she was discovered. In the hearings and the legislative hearings that came out of those initial stories the Director of Veteran’s Affairs ended up saying there’s documentation showing that that is not true. We asked to see that documentation and were told ‘no’, so the family of Delores French asked to see the documentation. They said, “Okay, but give us $100.” So they took the documentation and gave it to my colleague Dave McKinney who ended up writing that story saying that it turns out that there is documentation that shows that they visited Delores French’s room but she wasn’t there. It’s just that that was written after the body was found. And so the rules say that there needs to be record-keeping in this environment up-to-date, not written after the fact.”

In fact, WBEZ’s reporting has resulted in several laws being written or modified to address the tragedy.

You can watch Tony Arnold elaborate on the entire legislative initiative by clicking the link above.

You can listen to the program on Soundcloud.

And you can read a full transcript of the conversation here: CN transcript May 24 2018




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CN May 17 2018

Paul Vallas visits Chicago Newsroom this week to talk about his candidacy for Mayor.

He begins by arguing the the police force needs to be expanded to about 14,000 officers, of whom 1200 are detectives.

“And when the police don’t have enough resources, Vallas asserts, “when you have gutted your Detectives Division, literally almost cut it in half, when you have allowed through attrition the supervisory infrastructure to significantly deteriorate…when police officers don’t have working radios and working cameras, when we have waited six years to start putting tasers into hands of our police officers, and we had like 700 tasers I think six or seven years ago, where New York City had 15,000. So you know, the police when faced with the possibility of having to use their weapons doesn’t have an alternative to the use of lethal force…That has contributed, I believe that has contributed to the escalating crime rate, the increase in murders over the past few years, particularly the increase in carjackings.”

Vallas has a long list of grievances against Mayor Emanuel. He begins by repeating his criticism that the Mayor waited too long to start making significant structural changes.

“You know,” he explains, “if it’s year three and you’re gearing up to run next year you might have an excuse, but it’s year seven now. We are now entering year eight, and for the first term Emanuel made none of the tough financial decisions. He didn’t go to the legislature to get equity funding for Chicago teachers, which is costing taxpayers about I would say $250-million a year. He got it in 2017.”

But he also concedes that Mayor Daley didn’t do anything about the financial restructuring either.

“I mean Pat Quinn was governor,” he reminds us. “You had an elected Democratic governor. You had almost a veto-proof house and Senate. Daley could have gotten it in 2010. Rahm Emanuel could have gotten it in 2011. He pushed for another pension holiday in 2013…but at the end of the day he could have taken action. Secondly, he made none of the tough decisions on the tax and fee increases, decisions that were deferred until the next term.”

Vallas acknowledges that the City will need to enter into a consent decree to reform the police  department. But he says he’s not on board with civilian control.

“Look,” he says. “there’s going to be a consent decree that we’re going to have to implement, and there’s going to be some, whatever the compromise is on civilian oversight, there’s going to be some civilian representation on police oversight. I don’t support civilian control. I support civilian representation, because they’ve got to have some transparency.”

An important finding of the Police Accountability Task Force was the critical need for improvements to the CPD training program. Mayor Emanuel has proposed a $95 million training academy on the west side, something that has been vigorously opposed by community groups. Vallas, though, supports it.

“Yeah,” he affirms. “I support it and I think it should be located on the west side… My question about the Academy is whether or not the footprint is large enough because you need a rifle range. You need a driving range. You need an area where they can do physical education so that you’re not cordoning off the streets as the police officers are doing their PT, their physical training up and down the streets. My question is more about whether or not the site is adequate to provide for a modern police training center that is not going to be obsolete the day it opens and that’s my concern.”

Paul Vallas has long been associated with the introduction of charter schools during his tenure at CPS, but he tells us that they were limited in his time.

“When I left we had 558 schools and 15 charter schools,” he asserts. “Today they have 120 charter schools, so you know, we did charter schools as an alternative, but we didn’t close schools. We didn’t need to close schools in the process because our enrollment grew by 30,000 during that period. It’s the only period in the last 30 years that enrollment actually grew, so we got considerably more state funding because our enrollment was growing. And we didn’t open charter schools right next to thriving traditional public schools, so there was a balance. You know I’ll let the people who succeeded me defend themselves and defend their records.”

We dive into some history and discuss Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010, a program initiated with then-Superintendent Arne Duncan that envisioned the creation of scores of new charters and other initiatives.

“It didn’t work,” he claims. “It didn’t work, because let me tell you, for two reasons, one is they created overcapacity. And incidentally, that was announced like two years after I was gone…What they also did was they shut down schools and they dispatched the kids from those existing schools to other communities. I think that destabilized the schools and that destabilized the communities so that they could open then these new schools as kind of these freestanding charter schools. And I think that was not a good strategy, and I  believe it hurt the school system.”

He also had some choice words for Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close fifty schools during his first term.

“Look, even the strategy of closing 50 schools, you know if you are going to close a school you should never close a school that’s performing,” he insists. “You should find a way to get more kids into that performing school even if you bus them or whatever. And if you’re going to close a school then have a plan to repurpose the building. You know there are huge numbers of individuals aged 17 to 40 – dropouts, chronically unemployed, ex-offenders, etc., some of these numbers outnumber the number of students in those neighborhood high schools. You could easily repurpose those buildings and convert them into adult ed and occupational training centers, so have a strategy.”

You can watch the show by clicking the image above.

You can listen to the audio on SoundCloud here

You can read a full transcript of the conversation here: CN transcript May 17 2018

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CN May 10 2018

Scott Pruitt, upon assuming command of the EPA, apparently didn’t consider asking Cameron Davis to stay on. Davis had served nearly eight years as President Obama’s point person on Great Lakes issues, including coordinating the compact between the eight Great Lakes bordering states and the Lakes provinces of Canada. It was an agreement to preserve, protect and restore the greatest fresh-water resource on Planet Earth. But the new president attempted to de-fund it.

“We hear code words for how things should be like cooperative federalism,” Davis explains. That might sound kind of nice. Well cooperation is good, but what it essentially means is let’s push the obligation back to municipalities like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, like the City of Chicago, like Cook County and the States. But the environment doesn’t really respect those jurisdictions does it?”

Davis proudly proclaims that the reduction or removal of deadly chemicals from the Great Lakes is well under way.

“I think in some ways the reduction in our toxic burden to the Great Lakes is one of our emerging success stories,” he asserts. “Over time we have reduced some of the toughest toxics out there like PCBs, sometimes by banning them, sometimes by regulating them very stiffly, but either way, for the most part we’ve seen toxic levels go down. Where we have work to do is on emerging contaminants, things like PBDEs, which are flame-retardants. We are seeing this new generation of contaminants show up in the Great Lakes and flame-retardants are built into furniture, they can be built into clothing and things like that, and those escape and get out there.”

But the newest threat, Davis explains, is tiny plastic fibers, sometimes called mirofibers, which seem to be everywhere in our water, including our drinking water.

“Yeah, so what we wear, we are wearing – fleece these days and nylon-based clothing. Whenever you do the wash that stuff doesn’t dissolve, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits… Just like you may see plastic bottles along the lakefront or in a river or something like that on a very microscopic scale this is the same issue. The plastics that we use in life don’t really break down for a long long time, they just go somewhere else…what goes on out there in the lakes and in our rivers is often a function of what we do on the land and how we live our lives.”

No longer a federal official, Cameron Davis has set his sights on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. He ran for, and won, a nomination to a Board seat in the election last March. Caused by the unforeseen death of a board member, the hurried election had to be conducted a s a write-in. Using skillful social media and some clever commercials, Davis and his friends convinced 54,183 people to write in his name.

“So the vote that just happened was for the primary and I’ve been certified by the County Clerk’s office now as the Democratic nominee for November, so I’m running in November. That’s the mission and I’m heading straight for it,” he exclaims.

There is an interesting wrinkle, however, because after a months-long delay Governor Rauner exercised his right to appoint an ally to the seat at almost the same time. So it isn’t clear if there actually will be a vacancy in November for Davis to fill.

He says that doesn’t faze him, however, because he beleives the MWRD is a critical institution. “MWRD is one of the, as other people have said least known most important agencies we have in this region,” Davis claims. “I actually think it’s one of the most important municipal water agencies anywhere in the world. It’s got a budget of 1.3-billion, which is maybe a fifth of what the entire USEPA budget is on an annual basis just for the Chicago metro region.”

Listen to the show in your earbuds at SoundCloud here.

Read the full transcript of this show here: CN transcript May 10 2018


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CN May 3 2018

There’s a new biking option in town, and unlike Divvy it doesn’t use the familiar docks. After a lengthy process, the City decided on a pilot service area for the bikes (roughly everything south of 79th except the South Chicago community) and has green-lighted several companies to provide the bikes. Service began a few days ago.

Deloris Lucas, a transportation activist with We Keep You Rollin’ Chicago, tells us this is a big deal for Chicago’s south side, although “dockless” biking is still very new and there could be a number of kinks to be worked out in the coming months.

Dockless biking (DoBi) uses a smartphone app to locate  the bike nearest you, and, linking to your credit card, it unlocks the bike for you and tracks your usage. When you’re finished you can lock the bike to an approved  public fixture such as a bike rack, city lamppost or the like – and be on your way.

Transportation writer and advocate for transportation equity John Greenfield tells us that there’s room in Chicago for both docked and dockless bikes, and that at the same time Chicago is also making plans for a car-sharing program in a zone from Foster to Cermak, from the lake to about Central Park.  The car-share program would be similar to dockless bikes in that the vehicles wouldn’t have a “home base.” Customers would find a car through an app, use the app to remotely unlock it and drive away. The car could be dropped off in any legal parking spot in the service area, making the cars incredibly easy to use.

A number of aldermen have voiced opposition to car share though, claiming that they’d rob citizens of valued parking spots. So the roll-out will be more limited than the City had originally hoped.

Also on today’s show we discuss the chronically-delayed construction of the Navy Pier Flyover, an elaborate bridge designed to lift cyclists and pedestrians above the traffic at Lower Michigan and Illinois streets, across the Chicago River and Ogden Slip, and to rejoin the bike path near Wacker Drive. Fuinding issues, construction delays and newly-acknowledged issues with the Lakeshore Drive bridge will cost months more in delays, so the most optimistic completion date is now 2020.

You can watch the show by clicking the image above.

Or you can listen to the audio on SoundCloud here: https://soundcloud.com/chicagonewsroom/chicago-newsroom-5318


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CN April 26 2017

If you live in Chicago, in a building that was built before 1986, it’s almost certain that you’re connected into the city water system with a lead “service pipe”. That’s the individual pipe, made entirely of lead, that snakes underground into your basement where it connects into your building’s plumbing system.

For years, the City has confidently told its residents that there’s no danger of lead migrating into the drinking water. How did they know? because they measured lead in fifty samples drawn once every three years. Does that sound unreasonable? What if you also knew that the samples were taken at the homes of water department employees and former employees? Does that make it should like a somewhat less than rigorous scientific study of an entire city?

Michael Hawthorne’s been writing about lead and city water for a long time at the Chicago Tribune, but his most recent revelation is perhaps the most disturbing of all.

He and co-author Cecilia Reyes were curious about an offer the City made a while back to provide free lead testing at any home where the owner requested it. Turns out, 2,797 households took up the offer. When the Tribune researched the results, they found that at least one home in every one of Chicago’s 77 community areas had a water supply that was bringing out-of-compliance lead levels in with the drinking water. Worse still, thirty percent of the homes tested had lead levels higher than is allowed for bottled drinking water.

Michael Hawthorne is our guest this week. We think you’ll find the descriptions of his research unsettling, especially the part about how so much of this elevated lead was apparently brought about by the city itself with questionable practices as it tries to rectify yet another infrastructure issue – the replacement of failing, leaky water mains.

You can watch the show by clicking the image above.

You can listen to the audio of this show on SoundCloud here.

Read the full transcript of this show HERE: CN transcript April 26 2018

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CN April 19 2018


The Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova joins us today. Maya covers housing and criminal justice. She recently produced a fascinating report about a lawsuit being brought by a developer that could, if it proceeds, challenge the age-old tradition in the city council of  “aldermanic prerogative.”  In short, this tradition holds that any alderman can support, or reject, any development in his or her ward, and all the other alderpeople will support the prerogative.

Thant kinda came apart in the 41st Ward when Alderman Anthony Napolitano had supported a large-scale, 300-unit apartment tower near Cumberland and Higgins. Until he didn’t. Why he changed his mind is a fascinating story, and it’s closely tied to a very different high density building proposed for Northwest Highway just south of Foster in John Arena’s 45th Ward. Arena supports it, but Napolitano didn’t like it and he helped lead the opposition to the building, ignoring Arena’s aldermanic prerogative.

“He kind of meddled in a neighboring ward,” Dukmasova explains. “A lot of people thought for political purposes, because Napolitano is Chicago’s only Republican Alderman…whereas John Arena is this self-styled progressive. He wasn’t bound to the pressure of the people were against the building.”

Months later, Napolitano, after it had been revealed that the 41st Ward building would include as many as 30 affordable-rate apartments, appeared before the zoning committee to withdraw his support. His objection was that the building had too much density. The board complied. The developer sued.

The developer is arguing that, since there’s no legal procedure for these kids of arrangements, and since the decision to withhold zoning was made in secret, it violated the Open Meetings Act.

So is it possible that the developer’s suit could end one of the strongest informal traditions in the City Council, forcing Aldermen to reach zoning and planning decisions in the light of day?

Dukmasova doesn’t think so. She tells us that the City will probably find a way to settle with GlenStar, the developer, and agree to give the company all the hearings and process it seeks, ending the dispute (and saving the Prerogative.)

“GlenStar’s argument in their complaint is that, either aldermanic prerogative is a thing, and we honor this custom, and this is how it works, you can’t flip flop. If your saying you’re for it, you’re for it” says Dukmasova, “Or, it has to be declared unlawful, because it’s just this arbitrary thing that doesn’t follow any kind of rules or guidelines.”

Dukmasova also tells us about story she recently wrote about Atrium Village at Wells and Division. Built in 1979 as a private affordable housing development, it is in the process of being redeveloped. The idea has been that several luxury towers would be built in the parcel, with the affordable housing units interspersed throughout the development. Recently, though, the developers announced that all of the affordable units would be concentrated in the old building, and that people living in the old building would have no access to amenities, such as pools, gyms, etc.

Dukmasova quotes one of the affordable-unit tenants as saying “the developer said that having people from the mid-rise use amenities in the luxury buildings would create a situation in which they wouldn’t be able to have enough eyes or enough people supervising these tenants.”

We also discuss the total rehabilitation that’s under way now at Lathrop Homes at Clybourn and Diversey, and how the promise that all of the public housing units lost during the redevelopment would be replaced, is yet to be fulfilled.

Finally, we talk about Mayor Emanuel’s decision to build a massive, $95 million training academy on Chicago’s far west side. Dukmosava has profiled the young activists who’ve been organizing against the project, arguing that placing hundreds of officers in the middle of an impoverished community could induce unnecessary friction, and that the academy could be built for far less money in a smaller footprint on property the city already owns.

You can listen to this program on SoundCloud here:

Or listen to it in i-Tunes podcasts.

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CN April 12 2018

Chris Fusco, Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, is our guest this week. Fusco talks about the extraordinary challenges the Sun-Times and other media face in a market that’s only becoming more competitive.

As newspaper, magazine and broadcast companies find themselves going after a shrinking pool of advertising revenue, the race is on for innovative ways to expand audience and improve the effectiveness of their digital products.

But the new company controlling the Sun-Times is fighting back strongly with a fresh digital presence, new video and audio podcasts, a re-designed print product, expanded staffing and an aggressive marketing program, all released on March 28.

You can watch the video by clicking the image above.

You can listen to the audio on Soundcloud.

And you can read the full transcript HERE: CN transcript April 12 2018

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CN April 5 2018


Chicago Police Board chair Lori Lightfoot is our guest this week.

Lightfoot is especially good at explaining complicated processes, such as the quest for a consent decree, agreed upon by the Mayor’s office, an assembly of powerful community groups, the ACLU, the Police Department and the Illinois Attorney General. And they have to do it before September. But she’s confident it can be done, and that the consent decree will lead the way to significant, sustainable reforms to our police department.

She also explains, in  great detail, the process of sorting out who’s accountable for the horrific shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones. They were killed by CPD officer Robert Rialmo, and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability found that Rialmo should be fired. The police superintendent reviewed the case and came to the opposite  conclusion. That opens multiple new layers of process, including possible new hearings before Lightfoot’s Board. Lightfoot tells us that she’s very disturbed with the leaks of documents to the media, including Supt. Johnson’s confidential memo to COPA. The public scrutiny of the documents long before anything was final has corrupted  and “delegitimized” the process, she tells us.

And the $95 million police training academy Rahm Emanuel has proposed for the far west side near Cicero and Roosevelt gets thumbs down from Lightfoot, despite her assertion that Chicago really needs a new training academy. “I just think putting this facility in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the City without having that community support and involvement and engagement, not having it be part of a larger economic development plan for that neighborhood, it’s just wrong-headed and frankly tone deaf,” she tells us.

If you care about police-community relations, and if, like Lightfoot, you have confidence that real reforms can be brought to the police department, you really should give this show a listen.

You can watch it by clicking the photo above

You can listen the the show in your earbuds HERE.

and you can read a full transcript HERE: cn transcript april 5 2018

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CN March 29 2018

The massive shredders and processors that tear apart cars and refrigerators and scrap metal at Clybourn and Webster seem out of place in today’s rapidly gentrifying North Branch, but only a few years ago the entire region – known as an industrial corridor – was filled with factories, steel mills, tanneries and similar businesses.

There’s another part of Chicago that’s also left with massive ghosts of an industrial past, but there aren’t any fancy developers moving in with office towers and river-edge parks. It’s the area of South Chicago where so much of Chicago’s steel legacy was forged, and unfortunately for the people still living there a lot of the toxic residue still remains.

That’s where we begin today’s discussion with Michael Hawthorne, investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who writes mostly about environmental issues.

Manganese has been in the news this week as the City passed new zoning regulations prohibiting the outdoor storage of the material in City limits. It all began more than year ago when the city got involved with the huge controversy about petroleum coke, a dusty by-product of petroleum refining that was being stored in the tenth ward along the Calumet River. It took a long time, but the residents nearby got the city involved and eventually outlawed the storage of petcoke in outdoor yards. But along the way activists discovered a different company, S.H. Bell, storing manganese, which is a known neuro-toxin, and they wanted monitors put up around the yards.

“And that led to a big back and forth in federal court,” Hawthorne begins, “where S. H. Bell said we don’t want to put our own air monitors up around the facility. The federal judge said if you have nothing to hide basically why don’t you just allow this, ordered the monitors. They’ve been in place now I think for a little more than a year and they found high levels of manganese coming from that facility. So S. H. Bell is in negotiations with the federal government to resolve those issues.”

“There’s been a lot of research done around that facility,” Hawthorne adds, “and they’ve found that exposure to manganese can cause problems like learning and memory that there are detectable problems with kids learning and doing well on standardized tests, and other ways that they measure cognitive abilities in children, the kids who are exposed to this manganese are more likely to have those problems. The question now is are we seeing the same thing in Chicago.”

“The City of Chicago  piggy-backed on to what the federal government was doing,” he tells us, “and had their own clamp down on S. H. Bell. And the idea is at the beginning of this year S. H. Bell came back and said we’re going to stop storing manganese outside, so to kind of cut back on it blowing into the neighborhood.”

But the activists want another step. They want assurances that storage and shipping terminals like S.H. Bell can’t start up new facilities in there neighborhood in the future.

“The steel-making jobs are long gone from that neighborhood and what are they left with?” Hawthorne asks. “They are left with a lot of service industries and also kind of these like holdover legacy companies long the Calumet River, and the fear is is the rest of the City gentrifies, for example…that all of that dirty industry is eventually going to move and be concentrated back on the southeast side and that they will be disproportionately affected by pollution once again, which is what they were back in the day. But at least then they had a lot of jobs.”

Michael Hawthorne wrote recently about the Deep Tunnel. Specifically, he was addressing the McCook Reservoir, which only came on line in the last few months. Connected to the massive tunnels that run for miles under Chicago’s major rivers, the system is now capable of temporarily storing just over five billion gallons of sewage and rain water. It’s been the dream of water engineers for over 40 years.

But on February 20, the first big test – it filled to capacity in about 20 hours.

“It’s amazing and it says a lot about essentially what we’ve done to our natural environment,” he asserts.

So much rain fell on that day that when combined with the snow already on the ground, the system filled and went several million gallons beyond its capacity, requiring spills into rivers and the lake.

What’s remarkable about the past 50 years is that Chicago’s population, which hasn’t increased dramatically, has spread out. “And we’ve paved over a lot more of the metropolitan area since then,” Hawthorne explains, “and remember, we built this metropolitan area on a swamp. It’s flat. It doesn’t drain very well. What was the natural Chicago River was this sluggish prairie stream that really didn’t drain much. We live in wetlands, essentially.”

So, despite the construction of this gargantuan underground bucket that might have been adequate for the year it was conceived, by the time it has come into almost-full operation, it’s not adequate for today’s stormwater runoff. (There is, however, a final reservoir in the works, which will double the capacity to just over ten million gallons, but because it’s going to replace  a currently-working quarry, it won’t be available for about ten tears.)

So, Hawthorne explains, the big question is – what happens now?

“One of the ways that climate change affects our part of the world is we are either going to have periods of dry weather or really intense wet weather, and that’s kind of what we’ve been getting since 2008,” he says. “In Chicago alone. We’ve had some of the worst storms in recorded history, and in each one of those storms the tunnels itself, the tunnels were quickly overwhelmed. And that means that all of that runoff ends up going out into our source of drinking water in Lake Michigan. And that’s what this entire project was built to prevent from happening.”

Hawthorne says there’s a huge conversation underway about getting the Water Reclamation District busy with lots of smaller projects to disconnect roof downspouts from the sewers, install permeable parking surfaces, roof gardens and rain gardens to soak up and “use” the rain where it falls rather than move it around and mechanically process it. That benefits everyone. But thousands of smaller, custom installations can be complicated to build, and we’re in a race against time if we want to prevent  the hundreds of basements that flooded back in February from happening again and again.

On today’s show we also talk about the Foxconn plant soon to debut just north of Illinois in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, and about Cathy Stepp, who has been installed as the Region 5 EPA Director here in Chicago. The two stories are intricately tied together.

“Foxconn is this large Taiwanese-based company. They make flat screens and other electronics. They are a major supplier to Apple, and there was a huge sweepstakes to build a new factory, and Wisconsin won.”

And Cathy Stepp?

“Well, Hawthorne begins, “She was a state senator in Wisconsin on the farther right end of the spectrum. She and her husband owned a small home building company before that. She actually represented the area where the Foxconn plant is going to be located when she was in the state legislature. And Walker then named her, Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin named her as the head of the Department of Natural Resources.”

She quickly distinguished herself in the office.

“She was known for a number of things. Number one, enforcement of environmental laws dropped significantly on her watch. She did other things for example, cut funding for scientific research at the department. And then some kind of small-scale things, but they are big too, especially the far right causes which are scrubbing any reference to climate change from official documents. So she was a polarizing figure. She later was a big advocate for Donald Trump in Wisconsin when he was running for President. She seems to be inline with kind of the same forces that are behind Scott Pruitt, who as Trump’s EPA administrator, was the former Attorney General of Oklahoma and was known for suing the agency that he now leads to try to undo clean air and clean water regulations.”

So how has she distinguished herself as the new EPA Administrator that oversees federal environmental actions across five states?

“Not much actually. She doesn’t come to the phone. To my knowledge she hasn’t made any public appearances outside of the EPA offices,” Hawthorne reports.

“We do know on the Foxconn issue related to air pollution in Wisconsin there’s a big decision coming up that Pruitt and the Trump administration has delayed on a tighter standard for smog, ground level ozone, which can cause all kinds of health problems, mostly lung problems and eventually heart disease. The feds have already missed a deadline to tighten the standard and say where the different areas of the country are and what in EPA speak is called non-attainment. Basically they don’t meet the standard, and that means that sources of pollution in those areas need to do more to reduce pollution.

“One of the areas, one of the dirtiest areas, at least according to monitoring data in Wisconsin is the county where Foxconn wants to locate, and if the standard is tightened to where it should be under the law Foxconn and other factories in that area are going to have to spend a lot more money on pollution control equipment, or they are going to have to find credits from other facilities, credits that are very difficult to find, or they are going to have to scale back production so they’re not polluting as much. So it’s a big issue for not just Foxconn, but for a lot of companies.

“Stepp is in a unique position to potentially affect that. She was on a lot of letters when she was at the State of Wisconsin urging the federal government to back off and stick with the standard that was adopted during the George W. Bush administration. Her immediate predecessor at the Chicago office wrote a letter to Stepp and to Governor Walker last year saying this is what the science says. This is what your own data says. You are going to need to do more. By the way, Chicago is going to have to do more too…Stepp has said that she’s recusing herself from any involvement in that issue, but it should be noted that Scott Pruitt, her boss, one of the cases he filed against the EPA when he was Oklahoma Attorney General was to try to block this smog standard from taking effect. So it’s led to some very interesting legal battles in Washington. Pruitt already backed down. He was going to try to delay the standards from taking effect for at least a year, was sued, and immediately backed down. Now they are talking about setting the final designation of areas that are in non-attainment or in violation with the standard in April. So it will be interesting to see what kind of wrangling goes on from now until then.”

You can listen to this show on SoundCloud here

You can read a full transcript of he conversation here:CN transcript March 29 2018

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CN March 22 2018

Not that many people voted in Tuesday’s Illinois primary – about a couple of million statewide – but they made some very important decisions, including throwing out Joe Berrios, the powerful, connected Cook County Assessor, and unseating two of Toni Preckwinkle’s loudest critics on the soda tax issue, Richard Boykin and John Fritchey.

Three powerhouse political reporters on today’s panel. They are Tahman Bradley of WGN-TV, Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal and WBEZ’s Dave McKinney. Watch (or listen) while it’s still fresh. Chuy Garcia had a very special night, which not only launched him into Congress, but also made him something of a kingmaker in Chicago, where he could threaten the Burke dynasty, and possibly even Mike Madigan sometime in the future. Brandon Johnson’s narrow victory over Richard Boykin, Pat Quinn’s loss to Kwame Raoul for Attorney General despite winning all of Illinois, except Chicago and the Collars, and what’s next for Sharon Fairley, Marie Newman and Andrea Raila?

And, yes, the man who says, “we don’t have to live like this.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Garry McCarthy has entered the room.

Listen to the audio of this show on SoundCloud:




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